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What San Diego’s Young Adults Want (and What They Don't)

You think you know, but you have no idea.

Surveys show young people in San Diego are doing more driving, not less. But the jury’s still out on whether that means they don’t care about transit, or whether the city’s just not meeting their needs.

Here’s Republican Councilman Scott Sherman earlier this month on a city proposal to create a new urban village near the Grantville trolley stop in his district:

“We’re kind of at a transformative stage, where the younger generation is used to using mass transit,” he said. “People’s attitudes are changing, and we’re getting to a point where we can take advantage of it.”

And here’s Democratic Councilman Todd Gloria — at the end of his stint as interim mayor — on the San Diego he expects to see in 20 years, according to San Diego Uptown News:

“(San Diego will) be a city dependent on public transit, biking and walking, in order to get gas emissions reductions,” he said. “Millennials typically don’t seem to be interested in a 1950s idealized version of life. They want urban settings, access to mass transit, the ability to bike to places and I’m hoping to put into place policies that will help make that so.”

Statements like these aren’t new. Four years ago, Elyse Lowe, then executive director for transportation advocacy group Move San Diego (she’s since been hired by Mayor Kevin Faulconer as a deputy director of Development Services), offered one of her own, opposing a regional transportation plan that she said didn’t focus enough on public transportation.

“In order to attract the quality workforce we desire in San Diego, young qualified professionals want thriving cities with transportation options that serve them 24-7,” she said.

That’s the gist: There’s a particular type of growth young people want, and if we’re going to be successful, we need to give it to them.

Not everyone agrees.

Former Councilwoman Donna Frye, for instance, suggested a closer look.

“Many people seem to think the younger generation is using more mass transit in San Diego, and because of this, more density is OK,” she wrote in an email. “I am not sure where folks are getting this information.”

She’s right: The evidence doesn’t support the idea that young people in San Diego are abandoning cars.

CityLab last month pulled together Census data on the share of young adults who commuted by car in a handful of cities from 2009 through 2013 and compared it with the same rate back in 1980.

That young-people-are-driving-less dynamic happened in nine cities. San Diego wasn’t one of them.

In fact, of the 25 largest metro areas, San Diego had the largest increase in the share of young adults who commuted by car.

Nearly 76 percent of young San Diegans commuted by car in 1980; now nearly 85 percent of them do. Six other metro areas also saw an increase.

By that measure, it’s pretty clear that whatever desires young adults express about rejecting their parents’ suburban preferences haven’t translated to behavior changes in San Diego.

And that’s the best concrete data we have that speaks to San Diego specifically. Beyond that, we’re left wondering if San Diego somehow bucks the national trends.

But Colin Parent, policy counsel at transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego, takes a different lesson from those numbers.

To him, national polls (here and here and here and here, as examples) that show young people are less attached to their cars and like living places they can walk or take transit to their jobs or restaurants and cafes, combined with data showing the increased share of young San Diego car commuters, shows the city has failed to deliver.

“The polling stuff is very relevant because it speaks to how preferences don’t match up with actions,” he said. “You could have people say they want to live downtown but they don’t, is it because they don’t really want to, or because they can’t afford it?”

The polling isn’t universal, though: a recent one from the National Association of Homebuilders found two-thirds of 20- and 30-somethings eventually want to own a home away from a city center.

Parent says thinking of an urban-suburban, car-transit split misses the point. After all, suburbs aren’t all the same. Some are more walkable than others, some have enough transit that you can reduce car trips even if you still own a car.

Parent says there’s plenty of evidence outside of polls that show San Diego’s Millennials feel the same about smart growth as young people across the nation: prices and rents are getting pushed up most in dense, walkable neighborhoods — and not just places like downtown and North Park, but also in the more walkable, transit-centric parts of suburbs like La Mesa.

“San Diego is absolutely not unique,” he said. “Just looking at rent levels, you can see that the more walkable, transit-oriented communities are more attractive, people are trying to move in, and they’re driving up rent. Market forces show there’s a growing preference for these kinds of communities.”

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